From the Editor

Drescher: Publisher fights to keep public notices in newspapers

Executive EditorJune 7, 2013 

As a small business owner and newspaperman, Todd Allen is a busy guy. But Allen, publisher of The Wake Forest Weekly, recently did something he’d never done before: He worked the halls of the Legislative Building.

Allen’s family has owned the paper since 1952. Allen, 49, started working there when he was old enough to fold a paper. He’s spent most of his career on other business ventures but returned to the paper a few years ago.

Allen was motivated to visit the General Assembly after learning of several bills that would eliminate the requirement that government agencies advertise meetings and hearings in newspapers. The bills would allow the agencies to advertise the meetings on their websites.

Allen said he spoke to legislators as “someone who runs a small business, someone who is conservative and understands free-market capitalism.”

A matter of balance

He described the bills that could remove public notices from newspapers as “strengthening the power and control of government while weakening the influence of the very people who elected them to serve in office. ... This would curtail the public’s right to know what’s going on in our government. We’re mass media, and we do that better than the government does. People do read our newspapers.”

The Wake Forest Weekly has a circulation of 10,000, which has grown in the 3 1/2 years Allen has been publisher.

“We’ve maintained a strong readership,” he said.

Most newspapers have. North Carolina has 126 community papers and 48 dailies. Even during the economic difficulties of the last five years, most smaller papers have maintained their print readership. Larger dailies typically have lost print readership but have had strong growth with their Web, smartphone and tablet editions.

The News & Observer’s combined print and digital audience has been stable. The most recent report from the Alliance for Audited Media was for the six months ending March 31. It showed that 777,000 people in the Triangle area typically had read The N&O (print or digital) in the past week. In 2007, that figure was 772,000.

In an era of fragmented media, newspaper readership has been remarkably durable. Network TV news, for example, has a fraction of the viewership it once had. Yet readers continue to read their local paper. Newspapers readership is typically five to 10 times that of local government websites.

Lawmaker agrees with Allen

Local governments have complained about the cost of purchasing public notices. The N.C. Press Association supports a bill that would cut the cost of repeat notices and require newspapers to post all public notices online.

State Rep. Marilyn Avila has supported keeping public notices in newspapers. Avila, former chairwoman of the Wake Republican Party, is a thoughtful and respected four-term veteran.

In a stirring floor speech recently, she said the cost of public notices was worth it. She also noted that some bills would allow state agencies to post notices only on their websites. “Are our citizens going to have to bookmark every website for every department in every division and check it every day to figure out what we’re up to down here?” she asked, adding that many residents don’t have Internet access.

Like Allen, Avila said that fundamentally the issue was about doing everything possible to help citizens participate in their government. She carried the day, at least for now. That’s good for newspapers, which are glad to keep the content and the business. More importantly, that’s good for the public.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com

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